Chillingham (Wild) Cattle
are cattle which live wild in a large enclosed park at Chillingham Castle
. This rare breed consists (2006) of only about 80 animals worldwide, most of which inhabit a very large park that has existed since the Middle Ages
(the remainder are all at one other site). The herd has remained remarkably genetically isolated
for hundreds of years, surviving despite inbreeding depression
due to the small population.
Description of cattle
The Chillingham cattle are related to White Park
cattle, in the sense that the Chillingham herd has contributed to the White Park, though there has been no gene flow the other way. Chillingham cattle are small, with upright horns in both males and females. Bulls weigh around 300 kg, cows about 280 kg. They are white with coloured ears (they may also have some colour on feet, nose and around the eyes). In the case of Chillingham cattle the ear-colour is red – in most White Park animals the ears are black (which is genetically dominant
over red in cattle). Chillingham cattle are of generally primitive conformation while White Parks are of classical British beef conformation.
Description of the Northumberland habitat
The most striking element of the historic habitat
at Chillingham is the widespread occurrence of large oak
trees amongst grassland (wood pasture
), providing a glimpse of Britain as it may have been in medieval
times. A diversity
find a habitat here, due to the absence of the intensive farming
found in most other places in Britain
The Northumberland site is also home to a variety of other species including red squirrel, fox, and badger, as well as roe deer and fallow deer. There are approximately 55 bird species including Common Buzzards, Green Woodpeckers, and the Eurasian Nuthatch which claims this latitude as its northernmost range in the United Kingdom.
An on-site warden at the park leads small groups on foot to find the Chillingham cattle herd; on some days they are evident in one of the easily accessible meadows, while on other days they are virtually impossible to find, given the tangled woodlands and the amount of space they have for roaming. Just to the east of the park is the summit of Ros Hill. The cattle are not visible from this viewpoint, which does however give an impressive view over much of north Northumberland. With support from Defra, a network of paths has been created around the periphery of Chillingham Park (http://countrywalks.defra.gov.uk).
Ancestry and history of the Chillingham Cattle
According to the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, Chillingham Cattle bear some similarities to the extinct ancestral species Aurochs
, Bos primigenius primigenius
, based upon cranial
geometrics and the positioning of their horns relative to the skull formation. They further claim that Chillingham Wild Cattle may be direct descendants of the primordial ox which "which roamed these islands before the dawn of history
; moreover, according to Tankerville, these characteristics differed from the cattle brought into England by the Romans
. It is also possible that they are descended from medieval husbanded cattle that were impounded when Chillingham Park was enclosed. In the absence of adequate genetic or archaeological evidence these proposed origins must remain purely speculative. Bos primigenius in Britain: or, why do fairy cows have red ears? - Research Article - Critical Essay, http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2386/is_1_113/ai_86063329/pg_3, Jessica Hemming, April, 2002, accessed September 13 2006
The Chillingham herd is considered to have been in this same site for at least seven centuries. Before the 13th century this breed is claimed to have “roamed the great forest which extended from the North Sea coast to the Clyde estuary” according to the Countess of Tankerville. During the 13th century the King of England licenced Chillingham Castle to become "castellated and crenolated" and a drystone wall to be built to enclose the herd. At this time there was particular concern about Scottish marauders, which explains also the massive build-up of fortification of the nearby Dunstanburgh Castle at the same time.
Chillingham bulls contributed genetically to White Park
herds in the early 20th century, but the Chillingham herd has remained pure. Some degree of genetic affinity between Chillingham and White Park cattle would therefore be predicted, but this has not been investigated.
Dr. J. G. Hall of the Edinburgh Animal Breeding Research Organisation studied the blood groups of the Chillingham herd (reference: Hall SJG & Hall JG, 1988, "Inbreeding and population dynamics of the Chillingham cattle (Bos taurus)": Journal of Zoology, London, 216, pp 479-493). The herd was found to be remarkably homozygous, and this is what would be expected from their long history of inbreeding. These findings were confirmed in a later microsatallite DNA study (Visscher PM et al, 2001, "A viable herd of genetically uniform cattle": Nature, 409, p 303). Mitochondrial DNA studies have not yet been conducted.
The Chillingham cattle herd is one of very few herds of domesticated cattle (Bos primigenius taurus
) which are allowed to live effectively as wild animals, including for example leaving all the males uncastrated
. Their behaviour may therefore give some insight into the behaviour of ancestral wild cattle
The fittest bull becomes the alpha bull by fighting and threatening other males to establish supremacy within the herd. Typically an alpha bull will reign for two to three years, after which time a younger, stronger bull takes over. As with certain other mammal species, the alpha male is normally the only one to breed. However, this "King bull" system is not always demonstrable - at times, a form of territoriality with locally dominant bulls has been observed (Hall SJG, 1988, "Chillingham Park and its herd of white cattle: relationships between vegetation classes and patterns of range use": Journal of Applied Ecology 25, pp.777-789).
In 1939 the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association Limited was formed to study and protect these special creatures. However the herd’s population decreased, and reached a minimum in the unusually hard winter of 1946-1947
, which only 13 animals survived. Upon the death of Lord Tankerville in 1971 the Chillingham herd was bequeathed to the Association; however, when the estate was sold in 1980, only the intervention of the Duke of Northumberland
saved the herd by providing a 999 year lease by the Association to the herd’s traditional land.
As of 2006, the herd numbers about 80 animals, including a small reserve herd of about 20 head located in Fochabers.